By Shelly Reuben
My Most Happy Life Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 29

Chapter 29 Violators Will Be Prosecuted

Jarvis Larchmont took to the job of parks commissioner like a leech takes to blood.  He was, in many ways, a perfect bureaucrat. He knew how to assume command, how to manipulate colleagues, how to get irrelevant tasks done efficiently, and how to sabotage the work product of industrious human beings. Michael Moses Hurwitz had left copious notes on how to run the parks department in his absence, which Jarvis had to read only once to remember. He was competent at maintaining the momentum established by his predecessor, and probably would have left his temporary position with gold stars on his report card, except for one thing. Jarvis Larchmont loathed the Samuel Swerling Park. He loathed everything and everyone connected to the Samuel Swerling Park.  And for whatever unfathomable reason, he wanted to destroy us and everything that we stood for. All of the events I am now going to relate began in late June. Mayor Angel entered the hospital on Sunday evening and was operated on first thing Monday morning. Something went wrong during surgery, so no reports were issued about his condition, although it was rumored that he was still in Intensive Care. That same Monday, Michael Moses Hurwitz began his first day as acting mayor. He arrived at the office with about as much composure as any politician can bring to a new job, but at 3:17 p.m., two aircraft collided above the Chestnut Hill section of the city, and he was quickly catapulted into a mode of crisis management that continued throughout his temporary tenure. One plane dropped out of the sky and crashed into the river; the other fell like ballast from hell into the middle of West Barkley Street.  The harrowing responsibility of overseeing rescue, recovery, and removal operations – the death toll was 119 adults and four children – drew the thin line of Mike’s mouth even tighter, and occupied all of his time. He attended every local funeral and he made himself available to the families of every single victim. Although it was Mike’s personal policy never to complain, a reporter once caught him off guard and got him to admit that he hadn’t slept in more than a week. But even when it was over, it was never really over, because on his way home after making his last condolence call, yet another calamitous event catapulted Mike back into other people’s grief. But that was later. As a result of the crash, one city block and all four of the apartment buildings hit by the wings of the jetliner were or had been in flames. Emergency workers searched for survivors. Evacuation, hospitalization, debris removal, emotional support, and temporary housing were all matters of urgency.
My Most Happy Life Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 29
However, the location of the disaster was sixty blocks south of the Samuel Swerling Park and, tragic as it was, the incident barely touched our lives. Destruction from the crash had seriously affected the buildings and streets around the area where the plane had fallen, but there had been very few flames, and Merritt Jones’s fire company was not called to the scene.   Despite the sympathy that we felt for the victims, our attention was on other things. We were happy. Early summer was whispering sweet songs of serenity into our ears, flowers were in full bloom, and the air was filled with the intoxicating scents of lilacs, peonies, and roses. We wanted to inhale the sun out of the sky and shoot sunbeams from the tips of our branches. The jetliner crash occurred on Monday afternoon. Our happiness lasted only one more day. On Tuesday at 1:00 p.m., Jarvis Larchmont made an announcement from the Rotunda at City Hall about a policy change being instituted by the Department of Parks. No reporters attended his press conference, and Larchmont received zero media coverage. Whether or not his statement had been newsworthy, his timing was off, because all journalists, cameramen, broadcast equipment and personnel were at the airplane crash site on West Barkley Street, and would remain there for the rest of the week. Within minutes after he concluded his statement, one of Jarvis’s stooges strode into the out Park. Without bothering to glance this way or that, he hammered a placard over the welcome poem that Sam’s daughter, Honor, had written so long ago:     Samuel Swerling Park Our rules are simple, short and Sweet. Keep it Civil. Keep it neat. Romp and frolic. Climb a tree. Walk on grass respectfully. Jump a rope. Play a game Then … Please visit us again!!!
  For over 20 years, Honor had faithfully maintained, repainted, and re-varnished her warm and wonderful sign. It took less than ten seconds for Jarvis to obliterate it with a notice that warned:   No Tree Climbing No Tree Sitting No Tree Sleeping No Tree Touching No Contact with Trees at All   Esther and Meg were leaning against my trunk at the time. Initially, none of us could believe what we were seeing. But, stunned as we were, we never expected that worse was to come.  We were wrong. Mere seconds later, five people wearing dark green overalls that could-or-could-not have been park department uniforms stomped down the path. Four were carrying staked metal signs and mallets. One was carrying a stack of yellow posters and a box of thumbtacks. The sign carriers pounded their signs into the ground in front of our climbing trees. They did this quickly and with such efficiently that they must have known beforehand where each of us was located and exactly how many of us there would be. The signs said:  DNOT CLIMB ON OR TOUCH TREES. VIOLATORS WILL BPROSECUTED
My Most Happy Life Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 29
I screamed when the pointed end of the stake pierced my roots. I heard other exclamations of pain throughout the park. Nobody heard our screams.  Humans are not trained to hear the cries of climbing trees.  The person carrying the yellow posters – it was a woman – thumbtacked them to the backrests of all our benches.   But Esther and Meg were not looking at her. Their attention was focused exclusively on the man nailing the placard over Honor’s sign. They hurried to the park entrance. Esther got there first, reached up, and was about to tear it down when Patrolman Peter McWhorter interposed himself between it and her outstretched arm.  He said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Pete McWhorter was a big, broad shouldered man with bushy silver-gray hair, a small mustache, and compassionate eyes. The neighborhood in and around the Samuel Swerling Park had been his beat since early in his career, and for over twenty-years, he had protected local residents, most of whom at one time or another had lost dogs, misplaced children, or found wallets. Pete had exchanged pleasantries with Samuel Swerling, sympathized with Meg when her cockatiel died, attended the installation ceremony for the statue of Ethan’s Best Friend, and regularly brought his children and grandchildren to the park to jump rope, play hopscotch, and feed the fish in the lily pond. Patrolman McWhorter liked Esther and Meg, and until that Tuesday, the feeling had been mutual. Also, until that fateful afternoon, Esther considered Pete to be one of the park’s best friends.  Now, she wasn’t sure.  She let her arm fall away from the notice, jammed her fists into her hips, stared into the policeman’s eyes, and in a low and dangerous voice, not calling him “Pete” as she usually did, Esther asked, “Exactly what wouldn’t you do if you were me, Patrolman McWhorter?”  Pete jutted his head toward the interior of the park.  “Follow me,” he said.  He added to Meg, “You, too.” He led them to the nearest bench, pointed to an ugly yellow poster thumbtacked to its backrest, and ordered, “Read that.”  Esther read aloud:   By Order of the Commissioner of Parks In accordance with established guidelines (refer to federal, state, and local laws instituted to safeguard and conserve national forests, national parks, historic neighborhoods, wetlands, etc.), the Department of Parks has declared the Samuel Swerling Park a protected area.   per accepted procedures enacted to shield vegetation from harmful interaction with human beings, including recreational and/or biological contamination, the plant life referred to locally as “climbing trees” are herein and henceforth permanently off limits.  No Climbing      No sitting      No lounging      No reclining      No Touching all printed notices are public property and may not be removed, defaced, or altered Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law By Order of Jarvis Larchmont, Commissioner of Parks: Full Policy Statement with Documentation on File at the Office of the Department of Parks 
 Esther repeated the words “By order of Jarvis Larchmont” as if she were spitting water bugs out of her mouth. She turned to McWhorter. “Jarvis Larchmont is a city councilman, or at least, that’s what he was until a few weeks ago; it says here that he’s Commissioner of Parks. What happened?” Pete shrugged.  “And,” Esther continued. “What’s this business about our trees…our trees…being off limits?”   The patrolman inhaled deeply, exhaled dispiritedly, and said, “This morning. We got a directive.”               “From whom?” McWhorter pointed again to the yellow poster. 

“Our precinct commander. He was ordered by the parks department to enforce…” “Pete,” Esther interrupted impatiently. “Your precinct commander can’t be ordered by the Department of Parks to enforce anything, because the Department of Parks has no jurisdiction over the Samuel Swerling Park. Absolutely none. We are a privately owned and privately operated park. We do our own landscaping, our own planting, and our own maintenance. We have our own security, we pay our own bills, and we are self-insured. You know that. Everybody knows it.” Esther stared at the sign. “I don’t get it.”  Her face dissolved into a mask of indecision. “All our trees are healthy. All of them. We would never allow anyone – not a man, a woman, or a child…not a saint or a sinner – to damage a single leaf on a single branch of a single tree.”   Suddenly, she stamped her foot and exclaimed, “What right does the city have to barge in here like storm troopers? How dare they take it upon themselves to stop us from climbing our own trees? They are climbing trees, for God’s sake; that’s why my grandfather planted them; that’s how they were trained; that’s what they were put on earth to be. So, why…?”   She glared at the poster.  In a softly sinister voice, Esther began to read aloud, “All printed notices are public property and may not be removed, defaced, or altered.”    She tore the poster off the back of the bench and threw it on the grass.  She ground the heel of her shoe into the text, stepped aside, and looked up. In that same quietly menacing manner, she added, “Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Peter stared at the poster as if hypnotized by Esther’s dirty footprint. 
My Most Happy Life Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 29
She lifted her chin confrontationally.  “Prosecute me,” she said. Pete still did not look up.  “To the fullest extent of the law,” she added grimly.   Meg moved to Pete’s side and tugged on the sleeve of his uniform.  “What does that mean?” she asked. He saw a small freckled hand on the sleeve of his jacket. The sight of it seemed to awaken him.  “Hello little Meggie,” he said with a gentle smile. “Hello, Pete. What does that mean…‘prosecute to the fullest extent of the law’?”   Pete grimaced.  “It means I’m supposed to arrest the offender.” Samuel Swerling’s granddaughter thrust out her wrists.  “Arrest me,” she said.  Meg also thrust out her wrists. “I’ve never been one to miss a good party, Pete. So you’d better arrest me, too.” He shook his head.  “I won’t. I can’t.”   He reached for his radio, punched a button, and waited for the familiar sound of static. After a few seconds, he sighed. “I forgot. No signal in here.”   He walked a few feet toward the park’s entrance, looked over his shoulder, said, “Don’t move. I’ll be right back,” and he disappeared through the gate. The instant he was gone, the girls’ eyes met. Without exchanging a word, they branched out in opposite directions and, one by one, began to tear posters off benches.  Twenty minutes later, Patrolman McWhorter was back.  He was accompanied by four uniformed police officers.  Two went directly to the greenhouse, alerted Hercules and Alonso Hannah that they were to be escorted out of the park, and then they did so. As the father and son were ushered past Esther and Meg, Herk called out, “What’s going on here?” Esther thrust a poster into his hands. The other two cops proceeded along park paths, retrieving posters from wastebaskets and reaffixing them to the benches from which they had been torn.  Not one of them looked happy about what he was doing. By then, Esther and Meg were once again standing in front of me.  Patrolman McWhorter, looking more like a reluctant bridegroom than an arresting officer, gestured toward the park entrance.  “Girls?” he said. They followed him out. After they had arrived at the sidewalk, Esther held up one of the yellow posters. “There’s a line on this stupid notice that I want to ask you about, Pete.” “Shoot.” “It says that a ‘Full policy statement with documentation’ is on file at the Office of the Department of Parks.” Pete leaned forward and squinted at the line. “Yeah. So?”  “I want to know more about this alleged full policy statement. Do you think that there really is one?” Pete considered for a moment. “If what they’re doing is legal, a policy statement has to be on file.” “What about documentation?” “That too.” “What constitutes documentation?” “Whatever supports the order to prohibit tree climbing. Videotapes, audio recordings, research data.  Witness statements. Photographs. Things like that.”   “And this so-called documentation is at the Parks Department?”   “Supposedly.” “Where is the Department of Parks?” “Half-a-block from the Criminal Court Building. Why?” “Because if you aren’t going to arrest us, I want to read the policy statement, and I want to look up the documentation.”  Esther paused, and for the first time since the hubbub began, instead of looking like a wounded lioness, she looked like a child pleading to go to the circus.  She said softly, “Will you take us there, Pete?” Patrolman McWhorter did not respond.  Again, Esther thrust out her wrists.   “Or arrest me.” “And me,” Meg volunteered. Esther and Meg stared at him expectantly. Finally, Pete nodded.  Then he smiled, shrugged and added, almost tenderly, “It’s not like I have anything better to do.”   Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit www.shellyreuben.com